INSIGHTS

BT’s Ribbit Buy: Voice Applications Get Hopping

Ribbit announced that it had been purchased by British Telecom (BT) on Tuesday for US$105 million in cash. As deals go, that might not seem like a lot, but given the fact that it’s all cash and given the relatively slow market for “liquidity events” these days, it’s worth pondering.

Peeling the onion and trying to get beyond the cash, this is an important milestone. For background, you should know that Ribbit is a software and services company that provides on-demand phone service through VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) and a developer toolkit for integrating voice as a data type into all manner of applications.

The company has been around since 2005, but it began making news in late 2007 when it announced an integration with — who else — Salesforce.com. Ribbit added voice as a data type to SFA (sales force automation) and enabled sales people to dictate their notes rather than typing.

So What’s New?

Now you might say that this idea has been around for a while and so what, but older ideas that I am familiar with used real people to transcribe the dictation. Ribbit can operate in that mode too, but it’s the idea of leaving the voice notes as voice that intrigues me.

As salespeople become ever more mobile, the idea of opening up a laptop has gone away. Mobile reps either leave voice mail or scribble on whatever is handy, and the reality is that they live on their cell phones, though none that I ever spoke with enjoyed learning to type with their thumbs.

Ribbit gets people away from all that, and now that it has BT’s backing, I really expect that voice as a data type will become more prevalent. The really interesting thing to me might be what this means for device makers who have been constrained by the small form factor and the need to share it with screens and keypads.

One of Ribbit’s capabilities is to enable voice to kick off workflow, and I see all of this leading to smaller devices with larger screens and a more natural fit for the handheld device in the business process. Face it, adding a keypad to a handheld device might seem really cool at first, but it gets old fast. I wonder what we’ll think of keypads in five years.

CRM and Beyond

For CRM, I see lots of potential upside. First, all of the things already mentioned will make being a mobile sales rep easier, and I am all for that. It will also make it possible for all manner of people to become more mobile in their jobs. From the factory floor to service and support to administrative and executive jobs, all manner of people will be able to not only receive calls but generate electronic work bundles.

Maybe that sounds a little outlandish, or maybe it sounds like something from further along in the century, but I think it couldn’t have come along at a better time. The implications for the communication technology and the presence of the SDK (software developer kit) tell me that after voice, the next logical thing to do is video.

With jet fuel and gasoline prices stuck on the up escalator, vendors everywhere need to find ways to take as much transportation cost out of their sales processes as possible, and that should mean applications with video conferencing built in. I think video will be increasingly important in the years ahead, and if I was BT, I would be looking at Ribbit as much for what they have now as for what they can do next, and that means video.

Ribbit’s ability to deliver the voice SDK to application developers who want to enhance their CRM and other offerings is a logical precursor to video enabling these same applications. BT’s deep pockets and farsightedness make a good home for this not-quite-four-year-old — but very precocious — company.


Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.


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